A view of the US Supreme Court is seen March 18, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Supreme Court's split decision gives unions a win
01:05 - Source: CNN

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The Supreme Court said Tuesday it was evenly divided in a case concerning public sector unions

The decisions affirmed the lower court decision in organized labor's favor

CNN  — 

In an unexpected victory for union supporters, the Supreme Court said Tuesday it was evenly divided in a case concerning public sector unions, and therefore it affirmed the lower court decision in organized labor’s favor.

The result leaves intact a nearly 40-year-old precedent and is most likely reflective of the impact that Justice Antonin Scalia’s death had on pending cases.

At oral arguments, the high court seemed poised to deal a major blow to unions and overrule precedent, but with Scalia’s death there were no longer five justices available to do so.

The challenge was brought by a group of public school teachers in California – backed by the libertarian Center for Individual Rights, which, as non-members of the union, is required by California law to contribute to fees germane to collective bargaining.

The center argued that the fees violated its First Amendment right against compelled speech and urged the court to overturn precedent that held that while the unions could not mandate fees from non-members for ideological or political advocacy, it could charge for collective bargaining that goes to issues, such as wages and grievances.

Supporters of public sector unions feared that the court would wipe out that precedent and weaken the coffers at a time when union membership has been declining in general.

The ruling could have affected thousands of contracts and millions of employees.

At arguments, it seemed the conservative legal challenge might win five votes from the conservatives, but after Scalia’s death, the court was deadlocked 4-4.

“For several years, it had seemed increasingly clear that the court’s conservative majority would overrule the 1977 decision that had upheld these ‘agency-shop’ arrangements,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor of law at American University Washington College of Law and a CNN contributor.

“But with Justice Scalia’s death, the conservatives lost their majority – and, thus, their ability to change precedent. Today’s result isn’t a big surprise, but it is yet further indication of the problems posed by an eight-justice court,” he said.

President Barack Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to fill Scalia’s seat, though Republicans have said they want the next president to nominate the replacement. Garland is scheduled to have his first meeting with a Republican senator Tuesday when he sits down with Mark Kirk of Illinois, a centrist running for re-election in a Democratic-leaning state.

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Twenty-five states currently forbid mandatory union fees, and lawyers for the teachers hoped the Supreme Court would extend that nationwide and deal a victory to teachers like lead plaintiff Rebecca Friedrichs.

Michael A. Carvin, a lawyer for Friedrichs, argued in court papers that California law “requires thousands of public-school teachers to pay hundreds of millions of dollars” to the teachers union. He said that the distinction between permissible fees that are supposed to go toward collective bargaining and impermissible fees that go to political ideology is “unworkable” in the public sector. For instance, Carvin said state law authorizes teachers unions to bargain over class size and teaching tenure, two hotly debated policy issues that are currently playing out in the political debate.

His clients don’t want to have to pay fees for union positions that they don’t support. “Bedrock First Amendment principles forbid the compelled support of ideological advocacy,” Carvin said.

Lawyers for the California Teachers Association defended the state system and argued that the agency fees serve the interest of the state to engage in “orderly negotiation of terms and conditions of employment and resolution of employee grievances,” while at the same time ensuring the “fair allocation” of the costs that service all employees. They said the vast majority of issues on which the unions bargain are of interest to all union and non-union employees alike.

“Outlawing fair-share fees will override the judgments of 23 States plus the District of Columbia that have enacted statutory collective-bargaining frameworks covering public-education employees,” David C. Frederick, a lawyer for the union, argued in court papers. “It will also throw into disarray tens of thousands of collective bargaining agreements governing millions of teachers, police officers, firefighters, first responders and other public employees,” he said.

The Obama administration supported the unions in the case.

“Petitioners’ attempt to demolish this Court’s settled framework for analyzing conditions of public employment would astonish the Founding generation and would stamp out the State-by-State variation in public-employment structures that has been the hallmark of this Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence for decades,” Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli wrote.